When asked what made her gravitate towards psychology, Dr. Tera D. Letzring responded “I think I’ve just always been interested in people and trying to figure out why they do the things they do, why they feel the way that they feel in various situations and, you know, psychology is a little bit of insight into that. And I think it’s also interesting that, oftentimes, in addition to trying to figure out other people, we’re also trying to figure out ourselves.” In this podcast, Dr. Letzring recalls her academic and professional journey from graduate student to professor of psychology and, more recently, Department Chair. Along the way, she shares practical and insightful suggestions to those interested in the field of psychology.
Dr. Letzring grew up in Oregon, went to college in Washington, spent a year in Texas, attended graduate school in California, got married while she was in graduate school, and then found her first academic position in Idaho. Dr. Letzring is currently Professor of Psychology and Department Chair at Idaho State University. She has been at ISU since she graduated with her PhD in Psychology from the University of California – Riverside in 2005. She is the Director of the Personality Judgment Lab at ISU and is serving on the publications committee for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). She has served as Director of Experimental Training and has received the Idaho State University Outstanding Researcher Award. She also served as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Research in Personality.
In this podcast, Dr. Letzring discusses her graduate program application process and recalls that she applied to 12 graduate programs and was accepted into 3 of them. She remembers visiting 2 of them and felt the fit with the faculty was better at Riverside. She said, “sometimes your choices get narrowed down for you, so it’s good to apply to multiple places.” When discussing her job search experience after receiving her doctorate, she wanted to go somewhere where there was an emphasis on research, but she also wanted to teach. She wanted a balance of teaching and research, and Idaho State University gave her this opportunity.
When talking about her newest challenge, serving as Department Chair of Psychology, she shared how the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology (COGDOP) is a wonderful association which provides support for chairs and has been a very helpful resource. They have a yearly conference and provide a forum for discussion of education, training, and research while promoting the field of psychology.
During our talk, Dr. Letzring provides wonderful advice to help students search and prepare for graduate programs. For example, she shares her thoughts on reaching out to faculty members, getting letters of recommendation, getting involved in research, and working in a research lab. We discuss how more universities nowadays are looking for someone who has postdoc (postdoctoral) experience than they have in the past and she identifies some of the advantages of doing a postdoc before you try to apply for an assistant professor position.
Dr. Letzring likes staying active and believes in a healthy work-life balance but admits it is sometimes difficult to maintain this balance. She likes spending time with her family, back country hiking (she lives pretty close to the Tetons) and loves whale watching.
Interests and Specializations
Dr. Tera Letzring’s research interests include the accuracy of personality assessment and personality judgment by examining the behaviors and characteristics of people who are good judges of personality, identifying the types of situations that may lead to accurate judgment, and the different kinds of information that lead to accurate judgment.
Bachelor of Art (BA), Psychology (1999); University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA.
Master of Arts (MA), Psychology (2002); University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Psychology (2005); University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA.
Other Sources and Links of Interest
Welcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host Brad Schumacher, and today we welcome Dr. Tera Letzring to the show. Dr. Letzring received her master’s and PhD in psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Currently she is professor and department chair of Psychology at Idaho State University. She has been at ISU for over 17 years and for seven of those years she was the director of the Experimental Training Program, and she received the 2019 Outstanding Researcher Award. Today, we will learn more about her academic and professional journey and discuss her interest, and research, in personality judgment and hear her advice for those interested in the field of personality psychology. Dr. Letzring, welcome to our podcast.
Well, thank you very much for having me.
Well, I’m looking forward to talking to you a little bit more about your career and your academic journey. First off, what made you gravitate towards psychology?
I think I’ve just always been interested in people and trying to figure out why they do the things they do, why they feel the way that they feel in various situations and, you know, psychology is a little bit of insight into that. And I think it’s also interesting that, oftentimes, in addition to trying to figure out other people, we’re also trying to figure out ourselves when you come to the end of the day, or like, why did I do that? Or why did that make me so mad, and I think psychology just is a good way to start answering some of those questions.
I, I fall in the same boat. Sometimes I question why am I reacting this way? And then you, you dig deeper. I, I see that you attended the University of Puget Sound for your bachelor’s degree in psychology. At what point did you know that you wanted to get your psychology degree?
I actually took a psychology class in high school. I think it was probably my junior or senior year of high school and just thought it was fascinating. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a teacher. I just have always loved school and learning and so that when I took that psychology class, I thought, well, that’s perfect. I can combine my interest in teaching with this new interest in psychology I found, and I can teach psychology. It just, it seemed to fit.
OK, and then why did you select the University of Puget Sound? Was it because of the program or was it proximity? Tell us a little bit more about that.
Yeah, a little bit about proximity. I grew up in Oregon and University of Puget Sound is in Washington State, so just north of Oregon. And I wanted to get out of Oregon. Not because I don’t like Oregon just because, you know, sometimes you just want to try something new. Go somewhere else. I was a small still is a small liberal arts school, so I knew I wouldn’t get lost in the numbers. I wanted to be somewhere where I would know my professors and they would know me and thought that would give me, you know, those opportunities. To really maybe learn at a higher level than if you’re at a really big school and you’re just one of many and a sea of faces in your classes. So, it was just a good fit. Went and toured the campus and seemed like a good place to be.
And then after you received your bachelor’s degree, you attended the University of California, Riverside or UC Riverside for your Master of Arts and your PhD. Were you considering any other schools, and if so, why did you choose UC Riverside?
Yeah, great question. When you apply for Graduate School, I guess maybe the first tip, apply widely, right? It’s competitive, and so it’s been long. It’s been a long time, but I still remember I applied to 12 graduate programs, and I got into 3. So sometimes your choices get narrowed down for you, so it’s good to apply to multiple places. But when I was looking at programs, I knew I wanted somewhere where there was an emphasis on research. Certainly, learning how to do research and those kinds of things. I had done an independent study with a faculty member at Puget Sound who was a social psychologist so I thought, OK, social or personality psychology or some combination of those would be what I was looking for. So as I was looking at different graduate programs, I was definitely looking at places that either had a social program, a personality program, or a combined social and personality program, which is probably the most common. There aren’t very many schools that have just a personality focused program. It’s a fairly small area of psychology still, so it had the kind of the program I was looking for and had a good, you know, research base. There would also be some opportunity to learn and get experience with teaching. I knew that was that was what I was looking for, so once I had narrowed that down in the schools, I then looked at the faculty and the kinds of research that they were doing and basically there had to be at least two faculty who I thought I would be interested in working at before I applied to a program. So that’s how I ended up with 12 schools. And then I got into three. I visited two of those and I think just the fit with faculty was better at Riverside, so that’s why I chose to go there eventually.
Well, you already covered my next question, which was basically selecting you know what was important to you when selecting a graduate psychology program. I’ll kind of summarize if you don’t mind and you said, hey, you know it had to have these types of areas of focus, personality psychology and then you had to look at the faculty and you wanted to make sure that you had at least one or two faculty members that were aligned to you. And then the feel and the fit of Riverside seemed to be the best for you. The other thing that I’d like to add is, you know, a lot of our audience or listeners may not realize that you should do a little bit more homework on your graduate programs and schools based on, again, the faculty ’cause not all faculty are accepting graduate students and so you have to first check on that and then secondly check to make sure you know if you found some research that they’re interested in that you’re also interested in. They might have switched their focus now and so double check on that. Any other bits of advice that you might be able to share?
Yeah, I think you mentioned one of them, just the idea of maybe contacting the faculty in advance. Make sure one that they’re accepting students that year and two that they’re still doing what it is that could have caught your attention in the first place. And that’s actually one of the things that I didn’t do, so I think I kind of just got lucky because I didn’t reach out to. I didn’t know that that was something that people did just never even occurred to me. But now, as a faculty member, I realized, oh it’s fairly standard maybe. Maybe I should have known that, so that’s one of those insider tips that people might not know is to reach out, you know, email the faculty that you’re interested in. It’s OK if you’re interested in more than one person. And you know when students email me now. If it seems like they’re a good fit, you know I’ll offer either, well, do you want to do a zoom, you know a zoom call or a phone call just so we can talk more about what your interests are and what my interests are and how you see those meshing together. So, I think that is very useful when you’re deciding which schools to apply to.
And I looked back at my graduate career and I, I like you, had a good idea of what area of focus I wanted to look at. But let’s assume somebody just finishing up or getting ready to finish their undergraduate career looking for a Graduate School or program you knew almost from the get-go that you were interested in personality psychology. It is a relatively small niche and still is, but it’s growing. Any advice to those undergraduate students or even graduate students who still haven’t picked a focus? Any other thoughts on that?
Probably do some reading I suppose. Maybe look at different, different types of journals like look at a social personality journal but look at a developmental journal and a cognitive journal and see you know what’s been published recently. What’s, what are the new things that are coming out? Are there things in there that are really exciting to you? That might be one way or maybe think back over the Upper Division psychology courses that they’ve taken and, and think about which ones were they especially excited about? And could they see themselves you enjoyed work in for, for decades to come, so that would be one way to do it. The other possibility I think, especially for undergraduate students, as they could consider going into like a Terminal Master’s program first and usually those programs are more general, but then you’re also going to get the graduate level exposure to areas and to research. And that might help students figure out what is a better fit for them before going that next leap and applying to PhD programs. I think it be somewhat difficult to get into a PhD program if you didn’t have a reasonably good idea of what you wanted to do, because then faculty would know if you would be a good fit for them or not, right? And that’s a pretty big gamble. Taking a student who’s really not sure what they’re interested in. Because you don’t know. I mean, what if they end up having an interest that doesn’t fit with any of the faculty? Now you’ve made this commitment to a student, but you’re not actually a good program. You’re not a good fit for them anymore, so we wouldn’t want to see something like that happen. So, I would say spend the time and try to really figure out where your interests are.
Yeah, good idea and good suggestions. The other thing that I’d add is if you have the opportunity to participate in a lab at or any research that would help increase exposure to different areas of psychology that might pique your interest. Or you’re saying no. I’m not really into IO psychology, I’d rather do something else. Well, then you’ve narrowed it down, you know, so you’re getting closer and closer.
So very good advice. Any other general advice for those who are seeking a graduate degree in psychology? Look back at, you know how you figured out. Hey, I’m really interested in psychology or even in terms of the process you went through. You gave us a very good high-level view. You applied to X number of schools and they. You know you were accepted to three. Then you started looking a little bit further. Any other advice for those who are seeking a graduate degree in psychology?
Yeah, and you mentioned it, but I think it’s really important is to get involved in a research lab while you’re an undergraduate student and what that looks like, I think it’s going to be very different depending on the kind of school that you’re at. So, if you’re at, you’re at a university that has graduate programs. Everyone is doing research. The faculty are research active. The graduate students are research active. So, it’s really easy to just approach a professor and say, hey, you know I’m interested in this topic. I’d really love to work in your lab. You could maybe say just. I’d really love to work in your lab if there’s someone that maybe is not a good overlap with your interest. Just getting that research experience even in a topic you’re less interested in, is really important. Faculty are going to want to see that students have that experience beyond just what they’ll get in their formal classes, because research with like every program you know for undergraduate has some kind of a research methods course. Some have more than one, and that gives you certainly some insight into what that process looks like, but it’s also very limited, right? ’cause everything circumscribed you got to get it done in a semester, which is not very much time for that whole research process. So, being in a research lab and really seeing what that process looks like, you know working with graduate students, seeing what it looks like to be a graduate student, that’s really helpful to make that next step, but if you’re at a smaller school like I was like that wasn’t a possibility right? There weren’t graduate students who. They’re just more graduate students, so I had to sort of approach a faculty member and say, hey, can I do an independent study with you? I really want to get some research experience, so you kind of have to be willing to put yourself out there a little bit and offer to help. Another thing you could do if the institution you’re at the briefing. The faculty don’t do research at all. Is there somewhere close by that you could get involved? If you have the means, could you maybe go somewhere over the summer? Close to a bigger university where you could work at a research lab. We had, it was my sort of last summer at Riverside, a student who came and visited us and just said, hey, I’d like to work in your lab. I’d like to volunteer over the summer. We’re like OK free labor, right? That’s awesome. Sure, come and work with us and then he applied to the program next year and got in because we knew already that he was, he was a great worker, right? And was interested in that topic so getting that kind of experience, however you can, I think is, is really important.
The other thing that does for students is that it opens up the opportunity to get to know some of the faculty members and those faculty members can write a better recommendation for you instead of the standard, you know, boilerplate recommendation. They can actually say, you know, hey, Tera is actually so involved and interested in personality psychology. She, her research skills are, you know, excellent and, and then get to that type of recommendation letter that you really need and want to set yourself apart when you do apply for graduate schools.
Yes, yeah, those letters are important definitely, and being able to ask faculty who, who know you is more than just a student in the class. They’re able to say a lot more about what you’re able to do and, yeah, your character and how that’s going to help you to be a successful graduate student.
Yep, and then, upon graduating with your PhD, you began your academic career at Idaho State University. So tell us how you found that opportunity.
Just the typical old job search. During my last year Graduate School, just looking at ads. Back in those days those print ads, or we didn’t have fancy Internet. It wasn’t that long ago, but things have changed a lot since then, so yeah, I was looking for, you know again, somebody who you know wanted a faculty member in social or personality psychology. Maybe someone who had some kind of some quantitative experience I was really interested in sort of statistics and analysis, and all of those kinds of things I was interested in as well. So, looking for programs that seem like a good fit. Certainly, geography was more important when I applied to Graduate School, I was willing to go anywhere. I hadn’t been that many places as I grew up in Oregon, I went to College in Washington. I spent a year in Texas, so I was willing to go anywhere. It was just me. I didn’t have to worry about anybody else, but what I was on the job market. It wasn’t just me anymore. I actually, I got married during Graduate School and my husband said, you know there are certain parts of the country I’m not willing to live in so don’t bother applying there. Do you know how many universities there are there? But it’s different when you’re applying somewhere to potentially stay for a long time, whereas Graduate School 4-5-6 years, right? You can do that. Doesn’t really matter where you are, but when you’re looking at a career and I definitely knew I wanted to go somewhere that I could see myself staying longer term. So, I was also looking at, you know, just the basic type of university. I knew I wanted to do a combination of research and teaching, which I think is actually a little bit harder to find somewhere with a good balance. You can find lots of teaching focused schools that maybe have just undergraduate programs, right? There’s lots of very high level, you know, research one kinds of institutions where really your main focus is research, and you teach a class you know a quarter or semester, or you sort of sprinkle that in. But really, it’s a research focus. I knew I wanted somewhere in between, which was why Idaho State was a really good fit for that at the time that I started here. We had the clinical PhD program which we still have now, and we had just a master’s program in experimental psychology, but the faculty at that point were already planning on moving that up to a PhD in experimental psychology, so it was kind of fun to get in and help with that process of creating this new program and recruiting students for the first time. So, I guess kind of like you know, UCR for, for Graduate School, ISU is also a really good fit in terms of my interests. But also, how I wanted to divide my time and to be able to do both research and teaching and be at a place where both of those things were valued was important.
Do you remember how many you applied to right out of graduate?
Oh goodness, I.
Any idea you remembered about, you know, Graduate School, yeah.
Yeah 12. Yeah 12 is a more doable number. At least 30, probably 30 to 40 maybe, and I was at that time.
Oh wow, OK.
Some people had advised me to go the postdoc route first, but I said I want to give it a try. I, I you know, I know I want to be at an academic tenure track position. I’m going to try that route first. If that doesn’t work, then maybe I’ll do the postdoc. And it was sort of right at that time where you could still sneak into a good faculty position without a post doc, but things have changed and that’s much harder now than unless you’re going to a teaching focused institution. You can probably get a position straight out of grad school, but still, that’s difficult. And mostly because you’re competing with people who have gone to postdocs and they’ve got you know they’ve had the time to have multiple publications get that additional research experience, demonstrate that they can be independent from their graduate advisor, whereas if you’re still in your last year Graduate School, you haven’t done that yet. So competing against people who are in postdoc positions or even in maybe visiting positions somewhere, and they just are looking to move up to a longer term.
So, let’s explore that for one other second here, many of our audience members or listeners may not, they probably recognize postdoc, but they may not realize well what is that for and why do you do that? And you kind of touched on it a little bit that you want to gain a little bit more experience, show your worth and prove your worth and then allow yourself some more time to get more research and publications so. So, in, you know, high level you know what is a post doc and why would you use it? And why would some schools almost require it because it’s so competitive in today’s market.
Right, so postdoc is short for postdoctoral, and so it means you’ve gotten your doctorate degree or PhD. You’re in a position, but it’s not a faculty position. It’s kind of a strange limbo land that you’re not. You’re not a graduate student anymore, but you’re not a faculty member anymore. And oftentimes postdocs are still working very closely. You’re still working closely with a faculty member. Oftentimes that faculty member will have, you know, some big external research grants, and part of the funding of that grant funds that postdoc position so you’re working with a faculty member on that research project. Oftentimes, I think postdocs get opportunities to mentor graduate students as well. So, you gain that experience also and do their own independent projects. It just gives you that time to get that extra experience. And then and then to be actually finished with the PhD ’cause if you go if you’re on the job market as you’re finishing the PhD, right, you’re ABT, All But Dissertation, which means you’ve gotten all your classes done, or you’ve earned all of the academic credits that you need.
But you still haven’t finished your dissertation yet, or you haven’t defended, it hasn’t been approved by your committee and approved by the Graduate School. Your degree has not yet been confirmed. So, it’s a little bit of a gamble for a university to offer a job to someone who’s ABD because there’s no guarantee that they’re actually going to get that done before they start this faculty position. And if you weren’t able to get it done before you started, faculty position man, right. Now, it’s even going to be tougher once you’re in this new position, you’re teaching a couple of classes, probably a new class, right? You’re adjusting and then trying to finish up that dissertation during your first year at a faculty position is really not ideal. So, I think that’s part of the reason too, that postdoc is becoming more and more important is because universities don’t want to gamble on students who are almost done, but not quite.
No. Good summary. Thank you for that. You became a graduate faculty member after a year after you went to Idaho State University. So for our listeners, tell us what that means. I mean, you’re a faculty member, but you’re not approved for the graduate, I, I would say work and or involvement until they say yes, you’re good, now you’re a graduate faculty member. Is that kind of a simplistic way of saying that? Or tell us a little bit more about what graduate faculty member means?
Right, and it’s probably a little bit different at different schools, so I’m telling you this is what a graduate faculty member can do at Idaho State University, not necessarily everywhere else. So, you would be a good question to ask of everyone and we actually have two levels of graduate faculty, and I don’t know how common that is. We kind of have regular graduate faculty and then we call them affiliate graduate faculty, but that higher level really the main thing that’s very important is that once you’re a graduate faculty member, you can mentor graduate students who are working on thesis and dissertation projects, so you can be that main person who’s in charge of those students. Whereas if you’re not a graduate faculty member, you can’t do that, so you can’t like have your own graduate students. Graduate faculty members can also be on committees for other students, and that’s hugely important that it’s not just, it’s not just the faculty member and the graduate student who are putting this project together and signing off on it? There’s a committee of people who do that, so you need other people with that status to be able to do it. Uh, there also are we call them, GFR, stands for Graduate Faculty Representative, so it’s someone from another department who is on that committee as well. So, in psychology would be a mentor for the dissertation. Three or four other members with within the department who were on that committee and then a graduate faculty representative. So, someone from the university but outside of psychology and that person’s job is to really just make sure that that whole process is fair and going the way it should. It’s protection for the students. It’s a little bit of protection for the faculty just making sure things are done the way that they’re supposed to do, so you need to have that graduate faculty status in order to be in those positions.
Thank you for that summary. I’m going to share my screen real quick here and I know that you were the director of experimental training for about 7 years and I’m sharing the screen. Your Idaho State profile and it says professor experimental psychology and department chair. We’ll talk about your experience on how you went into or, or recently became department chair, but for seven years you were a director of experimental training. What was the goal of that training program, and how can it help those interested in the field of psychology?
I don’t know if it matters, is probably everything was six years because I did 2 3-year terms, six or seven years.
That really, so we have those, the two graduate programs. We have the clinical program and the experimental program. And each of the programs has a training director. And really, the what that person does is oversee everything that happens specific to that doctoral program. So, you’re sort of organizing the faculty we have, you know, experimental training committee with all kinds of when you get into grad school, all kinds of acronyms like you’re learning a new language. It’s almost like being in the military. I think there’s so many acronyms so. So experimental Training committee, are all of the faculty within each of those areas. So, you’re sort of the, the chair of that committee in terms of, you know, when do you meet and what kinds of things do you need to achieve, and then sort of the, the main go to general advisor for the graduate students who are in that program. Making sure that they’re taking the classes that they need to take. Overseeing the admissions process. So, getting new students into the program. So really, it’s just overseeing and running that particular program and in terms of the program itself, our goals are to educate people in the core areas of psychological science. We’re actually a little bit of a different program than a lot of graduate programs, because we’re kind of small, so the program that I came from at Riverside, there were four or five different areas, so there was a social personality where I was. But then also there were cognitive, there was a cognitive, developmental. There was like a neuroscience something, and each of those different areas had 7-8-9 faculty in them, and so you actually applied to be in a particular area, whereas at Idaho State we’re much smaller. We only have 7 faculty total, and so we’re more of a generalist program where people take core courses across four different areas instead of really concentrating in one, so it’s a nice broad education, which I think is especially useful these days, as there’s been sort of a big push toward integration and sort of pulling these different areas together. I think having a more general training is really helpful for that. So, sort of making sure that students are getting that general training. But also getting depth in terms of their more specific research training. So really the depth comes from the work that is done with the research mentor and, uh, you know a specific thesis, dissertation, whatever other research project that students are working on with the goal of preparing people both for academic and nonacademic careers in psychology. So, if you know we want to make more of ourselves, that’s one of our goals, right? We want to train people to go and be academics and do research and, uhm, teach classes and those kinds of things. But we also know that academia is not for everyone. It’s also a super tight job market right now. So, if we just trained everyone to be academics, we’d be training a lot of people to be unemployed. That’s not very good, but I think industry is really starting to understand and see the importance of the kinds of skills that people learn in a graduate program in psychology, especially learning the research skills, being able to say, here’s a question we have. Here’s something that we don’t really understand, but how can I design a project and go get an answer to that question? We also have a pretty big emphasis on communication skills, both written communication but also oral communication. A lot of our graduate students are involved with teaching, teaching independently, certainly also, you know giving, research, presentations whether it be within ISU or going to, you know, regional, national, international conferences so you know, training in all of that, and then also really helping people gain a respect for diversity and diversity in all of its ways, right? Not just sort of the basic demographic things, gender, race, ethnicity. You know that’s important too, but also understanding that just people have different world views and different ways of understanding what’s going on in the world. And uhm, having respect for that. All of those things are super useful in nonacademic careers as well.
Well, it was a very good answer to my question. It was a good summary what I wanted to highlight was your, your academic and professional history is a little unique in that you actually, right after you received your doctorate, you went right into Idaho State University or ISU, and you’ve been there for about 16-17 years. And you went from assistant to associate to full-fledged professor. And then recently, as I mentioned earlier, you became a department chair of Psychology. So, tell us a little bit more about how this opportunity developed and how you are liking the position so far and be honest.
Yeah, I think department chair. It’s an interesting position and actually just sort of academia, in general, kind of has a, a strange way of organizing itself, right? Because the people who are I don’t know if in charge is the right thing. Like, you know, identified as being in a leadership position aren’t probably people who’ve had a whole lot of leadership training. They haven’t had business management training, you know, even higher up, you get to Deans and stuff they’re, they’re faculty that just worked their way up. So, it’s a little tricky. I didn’t see myself being in the department chair position, and in fact I told my department chair when I first started, he is now the Dean of the college, that my goal was to not be the department chair. I was very clear with her. I didn’t want that position. I said, ’cause I want to be able to focus on my research and my teaching right. And I knew that once you get those, you know busy administrative positions. Something’s gotta give, right? There’s only so many hours in the day. So, my goal was to not be the department chair. But sometimes that’s just not the way things work out, right? That’s something somebody gotta do it, preferably someone who is definitely tenured, but already a full professor, so you’re not trying to, you know, really focus on that research portfolio because you know you’re already at that highest level of promotion. So, when, when we needed somebody, I said I’m willing to do it. I’m not excited about doing it. I will do the best job that I can. Uhm, so that was hard. It was a really hard choice and I felt much better after I went to a conference. So, there are, all the graduate programs in psychology, there’s an association of department chairs of those programs, and they have a conference every year. And so, at that conference, one of the first things that someone said was like how many of you aspired to be department chair. Like was that your goal? And there were maybe one or two who kind of went into it thinking I want to be department chair.
Most people go into it, just like me, thinking I do not want to be department chair but somebody’s gotta do it right. Somebody’s gotta lead the department. So, I’m still working on my mindset or I’m talking about psychology, right? How you see things working on really shifting my mindset from focusing on my own research, focusing on my graduate students. Obviously, I’m still going to focus on my graduate students. You’re a department chair, your own research definitely slows down. Assuming that you need sleep, which I do think that’s very important, right? And spending time with my family. You’ve got to have that balance in there or things are not going to go well. Like if I’m going to take on this department chair position the shift in the mindset is not only now my leading students, but now I’m also leading the other faculty in my department. I’m like, well, I’ve kind of. I see my purpose in life as really helping other people to fulfill their potential. And, you know, use the skills and the abilities and the experiences that they’ve been given to be the best that they can be and sort of contribute more, more broadly to people having a good life, so I just had to shift that to also including faculty, and staff, our administrative assistance as well. Uhm, it’s sort of opening up. That’s OK, I guess. I guess I cannot just focus on my students, I can focus on the faculty too. So that’s, that’s helping. I’m getting there. It’s been an interesting year, it’s, it’s, it’s a very sharp curve learning about all the different responsibilities, and sometimes the department chair just does the things that nobody else thinks it’s their job to do. So as somebody has to do it. So, it’s been interesting. I’m working on growing into it and we’ll see how it goes.
Well, it seems like you’re still feeling your, your way through it and then trying to settle in. Were you able to come to terms with hey, now that I’m department chair I had to give up A, B, or C a little bit and that’s a little disheartening maybe because maybe you did want to spend more time doing A, B or C.
Yeah, yeah it was hard because I really had to figure out what I could take off of my plates that I would be OK with and that somebody else could do. I have multiple conversations with my husband, he’s like you can’t. He told me this is not sustainable, right? Working late nights and weekends. He’s like you can’t keep doing this and I said, I know. So, we’re going to transition and then I’m going to figure out. So, I was actually on the Graduate Council at the time. I stepped down from that, so I had a, you know, a, a backup person so that was easy, it helped a little bit. The piece that was harder was I was an associate editor for the Journal of Research and Personality. I’ve been doing that for about four years, I think. That I decided to step down from that position in the middle of my contract, so that was hard because I did, I felt like I was letting the editor in chief, like the main guy, kind of letting him down, but I was like I just, it’s too much, right? Some something’s gotta give. So that was hard because I really enjoyed that position helping authors work through, you know, ways to make their publications better and trying to be supportive within that process. I enjoyed that role so it was hard to give that up and then yeah, just of course I’m going to be spending less time on my own research I would rather my own research suffer than my students suffer. So, my students are still very high on my list of you know people to help and things to make sure that you know that gets taken care of in a timely manner but other things, not so much.
So, I want to return to one comment that you made that I wasn’t aware of. You had mentioned that there is an association or a team or a group or something out there for support for those who are becoming or aspire to become a department chair. What was that team? Or that group or that association?
So, the acronym is COGDOP. Let’s see. I think it stands for Council of Graduate Programs or Chairs of Graduate Programs in Psychology. Something along those lines, but COGDOP.
Alright, I think, I think I found it so.
OK, you Googled it.
Yeah, while we were sitting here, I think it’s this one.
Yes, that’s it, yes.
OK, but I wanted to share this with our audience and our listeners because I hadn’t heard of that before and so it’s just another resource or another way to dig into and, and find out more information. So, thank you for sharing that. I’ll be sure to include this when we post your interview go live as well (Council Of Graduate Departments Of Psychology; COGDOP). So, while I’m while I’m sharing the screen, I also noticed that you also serve as the Personality Judgement Lab director, and so I’m going to go back here and here you are on your Personality Judgement Lab at…
Idaho State University. Tell us a little bit about this lab and what you guys are working on and what some of the goals are.
Yeah, so this is just my research area right when you’re a faculty member, you just get to say, hey, I’m the director of the lab and you can call it whatever you want. So, it sounds fancy, but I mean this is just me and my students and you know other collaborators that I’ve come across over the years working to learn more about my main area of interest, which is personality judgment and, and usually the accuracy of personality judgment in terms of how close our judgments are to what a person is really like. Although we don’t always focus on accuracy sometimes, uh, we’re just interested in the judgments themselves, sort of, regardless of whether they’re accurate or not. But mostly we’re interested in accuracy, so. You know in its younger days it was the projects that I was working on when I had an NSF grant, there was a big focus on that in particular, or making sure we got all that data collected as we said that we would, but now that I’m especially now that I’m department chair. But also, now that I’m a full professor and don’t have to go up for another promotion again. I can really focus on my graduate students, and so really, the lab, the research focus is really what my students are interested in, which I think is kind of cool that my students. They come in knowing, right? I’m interested in personality judgment. I’m interested in accuracy. I’m also very interested in positive psychology, so I would definitely be willing to consider students who are interested in positive psychology as well. But I tell them, you know what we’re working on is what you guys are doing. Like you are really the ones who are driving the direction of this lab. So, depending on how many students I have, you know that’s how many different projects we have going on and any side projects that they decide to do or any collaborative kinds of projects, either with other students or faculty from other institutions so.
I would encourage our audience members and listeners to go ahead and search for some of your YouTube videos, and I’m sharing one of them with you now, not playing it, but one of, this is from 2018 and I listened to this whole thing a couple times and I really liked it because you got into what is the difference between personality assessment versus personality judgment and what you’re really looking for as a researcher. And you’re basically looking at in the assessment you’re trying to understand their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and then being able to predict that and in this video, as well as another video here where both of these videos were by SPSP or endorsed by or funded by Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and I’m going to try to share this one little snippet. You were one of the many faculty members on here answering the question why we love personality psychology. So, I’m sharing my screen and I’m, hopefully I’m, sharing the sound as well, we’ll give this a shot.
The goal of personality psychology is to understand the whole person and personality psychologists acknowledged that, in order to do that, we need to look at people from multiple perspectives that if we just look at one perspective, we’re only going to get a very narrow understanding of what a person is like. And if we want to understand the whole person, we have to look at them from multiple perspectives, in order to gain that broader understanding.
What I love most.
And so, I’ll stop sharing there. I like that summary and I liked playing that clip because that was a good high-level view of what you do in your research. So, what, what originally drew you to personality psychology? I know back in undergrad you were, you were drawn to psychology in general and then you focused it more on personality psychology. So, what drew you to personality psychology?
Yeah, and actually. More social psychology than personality psychology, but since they’re so connected, it’s kind of hard to do one without the other. So when I was looking at social personality programs like again, you know trying to decide where to apply for Graduate School and then once I got in at UC Riverside there were actually a couple of different faculty who I had said I would be interested in working with and then who also were interested in working with me ended up working with David Funder, who at the time. I was still very deep into accuracy of personality judgment. Certainly, he identified as a personality psychologist. So, I don’t think I ever like sat down and said I want to be a personality psychologist like that wasn’t really a, a really clear thought that I had, but more ooh I worked with the social psychologist. This was interesting and I really liked this area. I’m going to apply to grad school. OK, there’s these social slash personality programs. Those look good. This personality judgment research looks interesting. I could work with David Funder. He seems like a good guy. He’s a personality psychologist. OK, sure, I’ll call myself a personality psychologist, but I think like really, I’m identifying more with the personality side, kind of, I think was captured well in that little piece that you just showed. Really focusing on how each person is an individual and each person is unique and how important it is to really understand that uniqueness and that you know people can be in the same situation exposed to the same information and respond to it very differently and really trying to understand how that works and why that works and the, we try to avoid the problems that could be created when people don’t understand that right? If you just assume that everyone sees the world the same way that you do. Well, if they do something that you think that they shouldn’t have or doesn’t make sense to you, then they must be wrong because if they see the world the same way I do, why in the world would they choose to do that? But being able to step out of yourself and say oh they see the world a different way, right. They have different values. They’ve had different experiences and if I understand that and now look at their behavior or their thought processes from that very different perspective, it actually starts to make sense. So just the idea that if we can really understand people and what makes them individuals and makes them unique, I think that can really help us to be better communicators to interact with people in a much more effective way. Or this is hard to do? I still struggle with my husband, calls me on it all the time. Like we don’t even realize that we’re doing it right. We just assume other people have the same information that we do. So, it’s still challenging, definitely, but something worth working toward.
I think it’s part of just human nature as well. You just assume that other people understand you. You mentioned acronyms before. A lot of times you, you assume people understand some acronyms as well and then you have to explain yourself. I know that you, when I was doing the research on you, you’ve been involved, and I mentioned the Society for Personality and Social Psychology or SPSP. And here is the spotlight page for you. And this is back in 2018. But this is a nice a lesser-known organization that if you are interested in personality, psychology or social psychology and for you, you are both, so this is a perfect fit because this, this focuses on both, but I, I liked reading this update and they asked you some questions and it gives you a little bit more background information about your history, what your interests were, and what you’re really like, you know, in your research and, and where you’re going. So, I liked reading this as well. I wanted to share that, and I’ll provide the link on the podcast for this as well. In your own words, though, tell us a little bit more about what SPSP is and how has it helped you, you know, develop into the academic and, and researcher that you are today.
Yeah, basically I mean like the acronym said, right is the Society for Personality and Social Psychologists. So, anyone who identifies as a personality and or social psychologist and I really am both person perception is very much on the social psychology side of things as well. But anyone who identifies with that, or even you know areas related to that it’s a great organization to be a part of. The main, sort of visible thing, I suppose that the society does is to host a conference every year. Which has just gotten bigger and bigger over the years, like there’s some places we can’t, we just can’t go anymore because there’s not, you know, a space big enough. But I love going to this conference and just seeing people that I only see once a year, like seeing you know people from Graduate School and other colleagues that I’ve met along the way through this conference. Or have been introduced by other people that I know, sort of catching up on what people are up to. You know, seeing the latest and the greatest research that networking piece of it is super important. I’m not a very good networker naturally. It’s hard for me to just walk up to somebody and start talking, you know, start talking intelligently, and so being at a conference, that’s an expectation, so it makes it easier to do. Especially if you’re at, you know, a poster session where there’s lots of people who are presenting their research and they’re just waiting for people to come and talk to them, right? That’s the best time to really have some of those more focused conversations that aren’t awkward because that’s the whole point of that part of the conference. And so, you know that has been a super helpful aspect in my career that I’ve met people through that conference that I’ve collaborated with. You know is there other Co-author? You know the grants that I the NSF Grant never would have happened without SPSP because that’s where I met Judy Hall and Jeremy Biesanz, who were the co-PIs on that project. It’s not something that I could have done myself, uh, at least it would have been awful if I had done it myself. Uhm, so that networking is super important and then having the opportunity to take graduate students every once in a while, to take an undergraduate student with me to that conference and be able to introduce them, or at least point out, hey, you know that paper that we just read. That’s the guy over there. Or that’s the woman over there who wrote that paper and being able to put names with faces, it helps you just remember the topics so much better. And then it’s also just kind of an interesting opportunity to spend time with my graduate students in a way that I don’t do when we’re all here, like it’s kind of funny because you, we live in the same town, or it’s a small town. We all live pretty close together, but when we go to a conference, that’s when we go out to dinner, or at least I go out to dinner with them. They might be doing it on their own anyway, but I don’t, you know, hang out with them like in my free time here, but at a conference, right, we’re going out together. Yeah, going out to dinner. We’re hanging out with each other. We’re just getting to know each other at a very different way than you would in a classroom setting. Or, you know, at a lab meeting or those kinds of things. So, any society that can, you know, facilitate something like that is very helpful. They’ve given me a couple of other sort of fun development opportunities like I was on they have a grants committee and so I got to review small grants that people had submitted either to do research or to host conferences. So that was interesting. I was on the awards committee for a while, so you know, identifying what are some awards, what’re we, should, should we be recognizing people for doing? I’m actually on the publications committee right now which kind of has multiple jobs, so you, you fall into these things and then you learn what it is that you’re going to be doing. So, I agreed to be on this publications committee. So, we sort of oversee there’s three different journals that SPSP publishes. There are two that are just SPSP so Personality and Social Psychology Review and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. And then a third journal that multiple societies are a part of so it’s SPSP Association for Research in Personality, which I’m also a part of a European Association for Research and Personality. Personality research is all is, is very big in Europe. Germany, in particular, seems to be an especially really good place for personality researchers, but being parts of these organizations that are associated with these different journals and sort of overseeing the journals, we actually make a recommendation to the Executive Council if there’s going to be a new editor in chief like we’re part of that process of identifying who that person would be. So, I got to help to do that with a journal. Last year though, it was actually really interesting. It was a hard choice. We had several really good people who applied, right, and being on a fairly small committee and you know the other older people saying so Tera, what do you think? I was like, oh, you actually, you actually want to know? I still feel like a graduate student sometimes like are you sure you want to know what I think? So that was really cool. Uhm, it just gives you opportunities and then networking at a different level when you’re on these kinds of committees.
Tera, earlier you were saying, hey, you wanted to have a good balance of focusing on your students, focusing on research and everything that you just told me, told me that you’re so still busy. You’re so you’re so involved in all these other committees and editing and everything else so it, it, it seems to me like you are focused on a lot and you’re very busy. I wanted to highlight this even though this was back in 2019, you were recognized as one of the five for this year who received an Outstanding Researcher Award and that goes to your capabilities and, and you know the amount of research that you’re doing. There was another little article on Idaho State Journal that highlighted all of the five university faculty members who received this as well. So, I wanted to congratulate you, first of all, on that, and while I’m sharing the screen, you also had a, relatively recently, you were an editor for the Oxford Handbook of Accurate Personality Judgment. And as a graduate student, when I was studying interpersonal communication, I loved handbooks and, and handbooks contained so many different aspects or views of that particular topic, the downside was you and I both know the handbook usually is pretty expensive, and so that’s the downside of it, but I wanted to share that with our audience and say congratulations, you’re still staying. Involved and, and very busy so I, I think you’re going to eventually settle in and, and find your niche a little bit and, and feel OK with doing that. At this point, any other advice that you’d like to give someone trying to break into the field of psychology?
Uhm, I would say. Find what you’re really interested in, like what you get curious about, what you find yourself thinking about when you’re not supposed to be studying or doing research, like what are you just wondering about and then figure out how to make that a career. That’s what I tell undergrad students all the time, right? Figure out, find something you’re interested in and figure out a way to get paid for doing it. I, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. I one of my the most gratifying parts of my job, I think is, is mentoring a graduate student, you know, seeing them come in, big eyes, right? Not knowing what’s going on graduate that first semester, year of Graduate School is hard. It’s a big transition and I think large part because it seems like you should be playing the same game, right? You’re still in school but the rules have changed, and you have to figure out. OK, this is kind of the same game, but the rules are different now. Like how do I make that work? Like how do I? How do I grow in expertise? How do I increase in confidence so that I can really, you know, share my ideas and you know, ask questions intelligently and put things together in new ways. And be confident that that’s, that’s interesting. I love seeing students sort of work through that and get to the point where they’re really, they become the mentors to the younger graduate students and sometimes even to me like one of the things that’s sometimes difficult about being in a smaller department is I am the personality psychologist, and so when I have a question that I want to talk to people about, I go to my graduate students. I don’t go to other faculty. Well, sometimes I’ll email my advisor or some other people, but usually I go to my students, so seeing them transform over the years into very, you know, competent researchers like, I love that. So, finding something that you enjoy and finding a way to do it, and if you think people are interesting and you’re just trying to understand people, psychology is a great way to go and, and what aspect of people are you particularly interested in, right? That would be more of that focus area and I think keep in mind too what may be the applied value of what you do is, I think when you see people get burnt out it’s because when you’re an academic, you often have a very narrow focus, right? You know this one thing really well. Probably way better than anybody really needs to know that one little, tiny area, but being able to see how that’s connected to other things and. How it’s important and how it can help? Anybody right not just a psychologist, but how it could be helpful to anyone and sort of understanding, right. Purpose in life is so important. There’s so much research on that so many great books on you’ve got to have a purpose. So, I think your focus in terms of your research or teaching or mentoring. You also have to identify the purpose behind that and what you’re trying to do. Uhm, and it’ll be fun, right? Learning new things, mentoring people through. Yeah, I really enjoy it.
I think one thing that I’d add is many of the social sciences, the goal has almost changed and shifted a little bit toward hey, you need to be able to apply this to real life. And I think more and more of the social sciences are, are pushing that on their researchers and students as well. Great, you’re, you’re finding out this information but what, try to apply it to our real lives and then it makes it a little bit more impactful for everyone. And it also helps increase the awareness of the research instead of keeping it within the academic world, being able to apply it to the general public opens up their eyes a little bit more, wouldn’t you say?
I think so. You need to have both, right? You need to have the basic research, that’s just I have this question and I want to answer it. And the applied. Once I’ve answered this question, now how can I use this in a way to help other people? So, I think you really need to have both. And if you’re in a super new area, you’re going to be more on the basic side. You’re just trying to figure out how things work, but once that area has developed more and you’ve established some things pretty well, then moving to that applied piece and that’s when that needs to happen.
So, in retrospect, is there anything that you wish you had known about psychology ahead of time before choosing this career path?
Sorry, getting dry throat. Uhm, I think just, just that it’s so complex. There’s so many different pieces to it, the way everything impacts everything else. But even if you do this, you know 20-30 years you’re still just going to know this little piece. Sometimes it’s kind of frustrating like you want to know more. You want to be able to see the whole picture and how things build over the years. But just you kind of have to embrace that, right? I have to look at this little piece and I’ll, I’ll make my contribution and somebody else later might come and pull that into a direction I never, never thought it would go.
So, I only have a couple more fun questions. I know you’re getting a dry throat here, and if you want to take some time out, I’ll have some tea as well, but. Some of the fun questions at the end here that we like asking all of our guests is, and I added a new one for you.
So, your special. Tell us something unique about yourself.
All right, so I had to narrow this down, but I think I’m going to go with, uhm, that I do back country hiking with my husband and my two kids who are now 13 and 11. So the people who are not familiar with back country hiking, it also entails back country camping because you hike far enough that you’re going to stay there for the night. You got everything on your back. But I love being out mostly in the mountains, you can see my background right. We live pretty close to the Tetons, which I think are incredible, but really having that time you talked earlier about balance, right? That really finding that time to kind of slow down, decompress, be in nature. Uhm, be very self-sufficient, right? If you’re not carrying it, you, you don’t have it with you. It’s not going to be there when you arrive at the campsite, right? There’s dirt and rocks and a fire pit if you’re lucky, maybe a river or a pond or a lake. But just being out there and really enjoying nature and creation. Uhm, really, it’s an important balancing piece of everything else.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that because I had another previous guest say that she was new into night hiking.
Oh, that sounds great.
And yeah, that sounds great. Wonderful, I hadn’t even considered that as well. So, all of my guests do answer this question. What is your favorite term, principle, or theory, and why?
OK do I have to pick one?
You don’t, it’s open, it’s open.
OK, then I have two. So, one would be more specific to my research area which and that’s the Realistic Accuracy Model, or we call it Ram, RAM for short, which is a model that my graduate advisor, I guess, identified of the process that happened, has to happen in order for an accurate judgment to be possible. So, a lot of my work is really around this model. I’m trying to understand that process trying to understand the factors that can lead to higher or lower levels of accuracy when judging other people or yourself and then looking at other aspects of people that are related to accuracy. And one of the things that I think is, is kind of cool is that accuracy has a lot of beneficial characteristics that are related to it, so I mentioned earlier I’m also really interested in positive psychology, and so I actually see sort of accuracy research as being a piece of positive psychology ’cause you’re really focusing on here’s how people can do things correctly, and mostly here are the benefits of being able to do that. So that would be probably my favorite model. And then in terms of just more of a, a, a principle or a term, what came to mind was reciprocal determinism, which is kind of a mouthful, but this is from Albert Bandura and his social learning theory and sort of in response to a very more strict behaviorist where these sort of the something happens in the environment and that causes you to do a certain behavior and sort of the causal arrow is always going in the same single direction and Bandura came along and said, well, there’s three things. There’s thoughts and feelings that we have. There’s the behaviors that we do, and then there’s the environment or the situation that we’re in, and all three of these things are constantly affecting each other. So, it’s kind of cool to think that we actually affect our environment, right, as soon as you walk into a room that situation is now changed because you’re there, right? So, you’ve chosen, you can choose to put yourselves in certain kinds of situations or people who are listening to this. You know, choose to put themselves into a graduate program situation, right? That’s a very different environment than if they’d chosen to get a job or, or do something else. And just the idea that all of these things are always influencing each other. It’s not just a one-way street.
Very good answers. I will include some of that information when we go live as well. Inside or outside of the academic world, what is something new that you have learned recently?
Hmm. Inside would be I’m really working on developing my leadership skills. I’m aware I should have started working on this a while ago. So, it’s better to learn those before you’re appointed to a pretty hefty leadership position. But, you know, in trying to be a good department chair at an effective department chair, that really holds people together have a, you know, a united vision of what it is that we’re doing, and I’ve really been working on learning and developing leadership skills. And as a piece of that, learning to have difficult conversations, this is kind of a big buzzword, right. Difficult conversations, crucial conversations that are all kind of the same thing, but, but I mean, they’re well-made right? They’re hard ’cause you’re talking about, oftentimes, problems you’re having with other people about very sensitive issues. But if these things don’t get addressed, it doesn’t go, it doesn’t go away. It doesn’t just solve itself. It gets worse, right? So really, I’ve been really trying to develop skills, and even just really a willingness to have those kinds of conversations with people to help to facilitate other people, to have those kinds of conversations because we work with people, there’s always going to be differences of opinion. There’s always going to be conflict. But we need to be able to address that and work through it in a positive way. Uhm, and it’s not just within, you know my work life, but personal relationships to. You know, having a teenager right, you’re going to have some difficult conversations there whether you want to or not. Just, uhm, you know figure it out life and those types of things.
In those kinds of situations, it’s almost, uh, forces you to self-reflect not only as the person who is proactively starting that conversation, but the other receiver in that communication. Even after you’re done talking and having that discussion, time for self-reflection to see if you can make any improvements as well so. Do you have any other advice for those interested in the field of psychology?
Just learn what you can, right? Read broadly. Uhm, there’s a lot of stuff you know available online. In terms of ’cause psychology people it’s just interesting, right? So, you can kind of find it anywhere. One of my previous graduate students and I’ve decided to become an entrepreneur. So, she created a website where her goal is to kind of, you know, give psychology away and help people learn some of the different, interesting things that we know as psychologists that you kind of forget other people don’t just know. So yeah, like following your curiosity. See where it takes you.
So, here’s a good one talking about your love of hiking. If you have the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
I think I already did it, is that OK? I wanted to go whale watching forever. I just always thought it would be super cool and we went to Mexico for the first time last summer and we were down there and it’s, uh, Cabo, which is where the whales come at the right time of year. But we weren’t there at that time of year. I was like, oh. I would love to go whale watching. I just think that would be so cool and my husband is like, alright, let’s do it. I’m like, OK, well I guess so. So, we went down during the school year I was like I can’t do that, and he said why not? Well, I don’t know because I just, that’s not what professors do. We don’t just like go whale watching in the middle of the semester, but he convinced me to do it. Then I figured out how to make it work and it was amazing. We saw so many whales we saw a mom with the younger one just jumping and, you know, having a great time and so again, right? Yeah, being out in nature and so I suppose if I had to do in the future, it would be just my husband and I went actually didn’t want to pull the kids out of school. It was just too difficult logistically, but I would like to take them because they weren’t very happy that we left them home with grandma. They kept saying you’re abandoning us like we’re leaving you with grandma. They’re like we want to go see the whales too. So now that I’ve been there and know how amazing it is, being able to share that with them, I think would be really cool.
That sounds wonderful, yes? Is there anything else that you would like to discuss or bring up in the podcast?
No, I would. I guess the main thing would just be don’t let Graduate School intimidate you, right? It sounds kind of scary, but if you’re a hard worker and you’re motivated, it’s absolutely worth, worth the time and the effort.
I appreciate your time and willingness to share your thoughts and experiences. Tera, thanks again for sharing your story and advice with us.
Yes, you’re welcome.